• billingsgate •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. Abusive language. 2. An impudent woman who uses scathing profanity with a vengeance.
Notes: I know of only one fish market that has become the eponym of an English word, and it is the Billingsgate Fish Market in London, known as much for the smelly language of its fishwives as for its smelly wares. Today it is located in a modern new building where most of the sales staff have improved their speech. Here is another word that ties us even more vividly than others to our history.
In Play: Subscribers to the Good Word, of course, would never indulge in billingsgate but the word does provide an ear-catching, homespun alternative to Romance alternatives such as vulgar, profane, abusive: "If I ever hear that kind of billingsgate emerge from your mouth again you will be grounded for life!" If billingsgate is anything, it is an attention-grabber: "I'd love to watch the football with you guys on Saturday but three hours of billingsgate from Kent Waite is more than I can take."
Word History: Billingsgate was originally one of the two water-gates to London from the Thames (just below the London Bridge). In 1699 Elizabeth I declared it "an open place for the landing and bringing in of any fish, corn, salt stores, victuals and fruit (grocery wares excepted), and to be a place of carrying forth of the same or the like, and for no other merchandise." The fish market thereafter became less known for the smelly fruits of the sea on sale there than for the rancid language of the fishwives who mongered them. In Vanity Fair Thackeray wrote "Mr. Osborne . . . cursed Billingsgate with an emphasis worthy of the place" and by 1799 even Thomas Jefferson was writing: "We disapprove the constant billingsgate poured on them officially." Your turn.
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